Wednesday 28 September 2016

Step away from the desk: time to follow the French and take a proper lunch hour

Published 11/03/2014 | 17:00

Even children at school get a proper lunch break and don’t have to stuff a ham sandwich down their neck in the space of 10 minutes
Even children at school get a proper lunch break and don’t have to stuff a ham sandwich down their neck in the space of 10 minutes

I recently spilled tomato soup all over my keyboard while trying to finish a column. I can assure you that liquids and keyboards are a match made in hell. I am currently typing on sticky letters to the smell of stale tomato soup mixed with multi-purpose household cleaner.

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After a lot of cursing, as I vainly tried to mop up the soup mess, I had a flashback to the long leisurely lunches I had enjoyed while working in France. I yearned for those three-course meals and glasses of wine in the company canteen. Somehow the hour seemed to stretch and I always went back to work feeling refreshed and ready for action.

Now it seems I always eat a sandwich, or soup, at my desk while staring at a screen. I'm sure this is not what any health expert would recommend and yet millions of people now spend their lunch hour in the exact same position.

But not the French. The French take eating seriously. The midday meal is the biggest and most important in their day. They believe, rightly so, that eating slowly is an essential part of eating properly.

Even children at school get between one and a half to two hours for their lunch break. Instead of having to stuff a ham sandwich down their neck in the space of 10 minutes, French kids get to eat freshly prepared three-course meals at the canteen and then have plenty of time afterwards to digest it.

However, despite their best efforts to keep it at bay – 'le sandwich' is slowly burrowing its way into French culture. But with typical French panache, instead of lowering themselves to our plastic ham sandwich level, a string of top chefs have opened gastronomic sandwich bars.

The real question on employers' lips is whether having a shorter lunch break makes you a more efficient employee? Not at all, say the experts, in fact it makes you less efficient.

Doctors all over France are coming out strongly against shorter lunch breaks, stating clearly that eating quick lunches cuts concentration levels.

The lunch break has traditionally been, and should continue to be, a chance to refresh your body and mind and to socialise with co-workers. Time spent chatting with colleagues can lead to increased creativity and cross-pollination between departments. Remaining chained to your desk while eating a soggy wrap isn't going to get your creative juices flowing or help you make fruitful contacts within the company.

What about the Spanish and their extended lunch break and nap. Is that a step too far? Having found myself nodding off in front of my screen on many an afternoon, I'd be a fan of the siesta option.

However, it looks like the Spanish are about to say adios to the siesta. Under a new schedule proposed by the Spanish government, lunch, which currently starts at 2pm and goes on until 4 or 5pm, will be shortened to one hour.

A report by the Subcommission on Rationalising Working Hours, that was voted through by a Spanish parliamentary panel, noted that: "A working day split up by an excessive lunch break needlessly adds to the hours workers spend away from home, with a consequent drop in their productivity."

Spain's chaotic working hours go back to Spanish dictator Franco who, in 1942, changed the country's time zone to coincide with Germany's in an act of solidarity with his fascist ally. As a result, Spanish clocks are up to three hours out of synch with daylight.

The fact that Spain hasn't had a suitable time zone for more than 71 years means we get up too early and sleep an hour less than recommended by the World Health Organisation," the parliamentary panel said.

The different working hours across Europe can make it difficult to do business across borders. But who is right and who is wrong? Who has the perfect balance? Should companies encourage their employees to break bread with their co-workers?

Or is it more soothing for an employer to see everyone sitting at their desk eating a sandwich while still working (although a closer look might reveal that many of them are actually surfing the web)?

Having tried both, I have to say I'm voting for the hour spent eating with colleagues. Spilling soup all over yourself and your computer is just grim.

Irish Independent

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